André Alexis let the dogs out (and gave them human intelligence)

vancouversun.com

vancouversun.com

When fused together, the names “Alexis” and “André” carry a lot of weight in Canadian history. Their first noteworthy pairing dates back to 19th century Manitoba, where Métis icon Louis Riel received spiritual advice from Father Alexis André just prior to his controversial 1885 execution. Over a century later, a Trinidad-born/Ottawa-raised writer named André Alexis crept onto the scene and began publishing his earliest works. These days, Alexis is one of the hottest names in Canadian culture thanks to his contemplative novel Fifteen Dogs, which recently took home the 2015 Giller Prize (widely considered Canada’s top literary honour).

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I say contemplative because contemplation is really the core motivation behind Fifteen Dogs. The premise of the novel centers around a simple question: if animals had the capacity to think with human rationality, would they be better or worse off? It sounds like the type of debate that would arise after downing a few beers at the local watering hole, which is exactly how Alexis chooses to kick off his story. Except rather than doing so with bored regulars or impassioned philosophy majors, he uses Greek gods, who take opposing positions on the dispute—and conveniently have the power to actually settle it. After covering their tab at Toronto’s Wheat Sheaf tavern, Apollo and Hermes stroll down King St. and stumble on a veterinary clinic where 15 dogs have been left overnight. The deities finalize a wager fixed upon the condition of whether even a single dog would die happily if it could think like a human, and from there, they grant each of the canines that ability and let their bet unfold.

At this point, there are a number of different directions that Alexis could have taken the novel in, but he opts for a pretty pragmatic approach. He describes the events following the change in consciousness with dogged (couldn’t resist!) realism. The lack of flowery prose reflects the animalistic nature of the subjects themselves. Although they now have the capabilities of human thought, the dogs still very much possess the biological identity of their own species. It’s not like watching Brian from Family Guy, who is a human for all intents and purposes until it suits the circumstances that he start acknowledging his Labrador limitations.

Alexis does a phenomenal job of depicting the struggle between the dogs’ pack mentality and their newfound mental aptitude. While some of them are okay with embracing the intellectual curiosity they’ve been given, others believe that the 15 of them should do everything in their power to suppress their thoughts and simply act as other canines would. This results in various internal struggles that culminate in violence and abandonment. As I read through these passages I was frequently reminded of Biblical stories like those of Cain or Abel and Joseph and his brothers, where jealousy and divergent philosophies lead to betrayal among family members.

Fifteen Dogs is a mere 171 pages long and this results in an extremely fast-paced story. At times this works to Alexis’ advantage, but in some ways it’s a bit dissatisfying. Although things eventually slow down and focus closely on the experiences of individual dogs, the first portion of the novel packs an enormous amount of action into a small window. Nothing is ever unclear or glossed over in terms of conveying information to the reader, but up until a certain point, Alexis is really just interested in conveying the bare essentials. Even the dogs that did feature prominently in the book could’ve been fleshed out a bit more.

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The same goes for Toronto as a setting. In the physical book’s opening pages, we’re presented with two beautifully drawn maps of downtown neighbourhoods High Park and The Beaches. Alexis uses the map to clarify points of reference that appear throughout the novel, but in looking at them, you start to notice all the spaces that were ignored and get the sense that he could have really capitalized more on the abundance of possibility the city offers. Then again, maybe I’m just thinking wishfully as a Torontonian who knows the city well and would value these references more than an unfamiliar reader.

The most enjoyable parts of the book for me were the interactions between the dogs and the humans that take some of them in. Yes, the dogs make gains with the English language that allow them to communicate far better than any other pooch would, but it’s the non-verbal, emotional common ground (or lack thereof) between the species that really stands out.

In the end, Alexis gave us a novel that chooses brevity and wears it fairly well. As much as I was curious about certain characters and places that don’t receive elaboration, I didn’t walk away from Fifteen Dogs feeling shortchanged. It borrows elements from classical literature and mythological stories, and those are often intended to be quick and didactic. Alexis’ simulation of Hermes and Apollo’s wager is thoughtful, precise, and gratifying. There’s nothing that absolutely needed to be there but wasn’t.

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